“I do NOT want to use edibles as Reinforcers!!”

We have definitely heard this from many of the parents that we’ve worked with over the years.  On the surface, it’s easy to see where they are coming from—we do not need to use edibles to get typically developing children to comply with us so why should we use this strategy when working with a child with autism?   That is a good question and here is our response regarding this matter.

Generally speaking, typically developing children will respond to many different types of reinforcers. Children with autism might respond to only a limited number or type of reinforcer.  If the goal is to teach children with autism a new, critical skill that is essential for their development, we absolutely have to get them to respond to our instructions. A child who is motivated to work with you is far more likely to acquire more skills and at a faster rate, than if he is not motivated to work with you.  As Dr. Partington tells his clients, “We want the children to run to us, not from us.” If using edibles motivates the child to ‘run to us’, we may have to use these types of reinforcers, at least in the beginning.

While we always want to use an effective reinforcer, which may includes edibles, we also understand parents who are opposed to using edibles all together.  That is, we don’t want to use edibles as a long-term solution for motivating the child to respond. However, if using edibles is the best solution, at the present time, and doing so allows us to “get the child going,” we support using them during the initial instructional sessions.   Once the child learns to comply and respond for us, the goal should then shift and emphasize the use of other, non-edible items as reinforcers (praise, tokens, toys, events such as “hide-an-go-seek,” etc.). This strategy can help to reduce or eliminate the need for edible reinforcers as it relates to autism education with parents.  Here are a few summary points and general concepts to consider:

When you begin to teach your child new skills, the goal is to get the child to respond.  We recommend using reinforcers that are powerful enough to get the child motivated, even if that means using edibles.

The long-term goal should include getting the child to respond to reinforcers that typically developing children and adults respond to (for example, praise, attention, and other social reinforcers).

Once the child begins to respond consistently for edible reinforcers, the focus can turn toward establishing social responses as reinforcers. To do this, the instructor needs to offer praise and a change in intonation (from a neutral to a positive tone) just prior to giving the reinforcer.  Through repetition, the child will begin to associate these subtle forms of social feedback as reinforcers.


One might also consider using a token system, as it can be helpful for delaying access to more powerful reinforcers (food, using an iPad, etc.).  While it’s not the same as money, it’s conceptually similar, in that tokens can be earned and then exchanged for established reinforcers. The instructor will need to decide how many tokens the child will need to earn in order to get a reinforcer.  

By using a token system and social reinforcers, the learner can develop the ability to respond to more typical reinforcers.

Once the learner begins to respond for praise, tokens, etc., one can gradually reduce how often and when they are delivered.  Be sure that it is frequent enough, however, or their ability to reinforce behaviors will diminish.

Reinforcement Alternatives

For learners that really enjoy working for edible reinforcers, it might be worth introducing them to other activities that they might enjoy.  Some examples include giving them boosts in the air, jumping on a trampoline, spinning in a chair, pushing them on a swing, etc. Put simply, the parents may be able to get creative and find other reinforcers that can be used instead of edibles.   

Additional Resources

This blog briefly touches on many different concepts including the use of reinforcers to increase behavior, establishing tokens and subtle forms of social feedback as reinforcers, as well as how to identify other reinforcers that might be able to replace edibles as a powerful reinforcer (aka reinforcer sampling).  For more information on these topics as well as techniques on how to apply them, we suggest reading chapters 5-7 in the book, Success on the Spectrum: How to Teach Skills to Individuals with Autism.

Be sure to check out our services related to AFLS and WebABLLS as well!


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